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How Eliot nurtured his fame in the basement of a bank.

By JOSEPH EPSTEIN [Commentary] – An immitigable highbrow, Eliot was concerned about the slackening of high culture and the diminishing quality of education—concerns that have proved prophetic. The poetry on which his reputation as a leading figure of the modernist avant-garde was based was not easily comprehended. “Poets, in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,” he wrote, but he also wrote that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” which seems to have been the case with his. His criticism, much of which began as lectures, always came from on high…

Far from its being accidental, Eliot’s fame was planned for, carefully cultivated, and nurtured once it arrived. From the first volume of Eliot’s letters, newly revised and just released in Great Britain, we learn that, in 1919, when he was 31, he wrote to J.H. Woods, his philosophy teacher at Harvard: “There are only two ways in which a writer can become important—to write a great deal, and have his writings appear everywhere, or to write very little.” He chose the latter: to write very little but always to dazzle. “My reputation in London is built upon a small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year,” he wrote. “The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”

Eliot worked at Lloyd’s Bank between 1917 and 1925 as the head of a small department stationed in the basement and assigned the translation of foreign documents and overseeing the analysis of the economic behavior of foreign governments. When friends formed a foundation of sorts to bail him out of what was thought drudgery taking him from his creative work, or when he was offered a sub-editorship on the Athenaeum magazine, he eschewed both, preferring to remain at the bank. He felt that, as he put it, he could “influence London opinion and English literature in a better way” by remaining slightly outside of things. The bank, moreover, with its distance from the standard literary life, lent him, as he noted, “aura.” He wrote to his mother in 1919: “I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and [working in the bank] I can also remain isolated and detached.” Those are the words of a man carefully but decidedly on the make.

Continued at Commentary | More Chronicle & Notices.

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